By Tom Beard
“John,- I – think – you’d – better – stop.” My voice had an uncertain hesitancy. The khaki clad figure leaping from the ditch onto the road in front of our car aimed an M-1 rifle at us. The stygian Greek night seemed to absorb even the light from the stars. It was dark! Only the soldier with the gun was visible. To our left were miles of olive groves swallowed in darkness and to our right was the lone runway, now unlit, where we landed a few minutes earlier. And ahead in the beam of the headlights stood the lone gunman, an unpredictable challenge with his rifle. One mile behind us was “our base” deserted, now also cloaked in black. We were alone on the deserted road in the dark with a gunman forcing us to stop.
When we arrived at our new base in Greece three weeks earlier, workers were frantically plastering walls and doors covering bullet holes in the low stucco building used for offices and training rooms. The long neglected adjacent metal hanger looked in reasonable condition and had space enough to hold one Grumman Albatross. Out in the hard packed dirt field—between the hangar and runway—covered with dry weeds, smelling of Greek herbs, were parked twenty SHU-16B ASW airplanes in careless-staggered rows, dusty and long overdue for care. All this was located in a long abandoned section of the unused Greek Air Force Base in Elevsis about twenty miles west of Athens.
John (Lt. John Lewis, USCG) and I were driving back to our hotel in a little farming village of Megalo Pevko. We were a part of a group of six Coast Guard aviators and sixteen enlisted instructors assigned to teach the Greek Air Force and Navy how to operate their newly acquired Grumman SHU-16B triphibians during the summer of 1969. We experienced tensions running high because of the political situation. Greece was under the tyrannical rule of the “Colonels.” Communist on all borders were ready to invade (so the people were made to believe) and the Turks continued to be always a nuisance. Strangers avoided talking to us. Most unusual for the Greeks as I was much later to learn.
US assistance was covert, and being a part of it, we were without uniforms or military identification and only working through the U.S. embassy. There was much interest in our operation from the Soviets. They feared a weakening in the balance of power through the Greeks’ new capability to monitor the Red’s submarine passages into and out of the Black Sea with these newly acquired anti-submarine aircraft. There was also the perpetual enemy, the Turks, lurking. Furthermore, added to all this, were anti-government factions who feared any more military capacity by the timocracy aided by the US government. Also on the list of people who’s attention we captured were the Greek Navy, Greek Air Force, US Navy, and US Air Force, and our own CIA. It seemed just about every one else in the region wanted to know exactly what we were doing. It was peculiar to us since everything we were doing was unclassified. We were just qualifying pilots in a new type of aircraft. Intrigue by others had blown our jobs totally beyond our concept. We were naive.
Some only watched. Others not so stealthily trailed. And a few attempted to distract us.
John stopped our station wagon as we approached the soldier. The almost boy in a baggy oversized khakis still kept the outdated military rifle pointed at us as he walked around to my side window. I rolled it down. He stuck the muzzle in pointed toward us. I smiled and started saying the Greek words I learned so far during our stay: “Efharisto poli kalamera horiatiki salata thio ovga domestica psomi tiri portokalata kalamarakia karpouzi.”
John just sat there. The baffled soldier gave us a queer look, backed away and lowered the rifle pointing it at the ground. I said to John sotto voce, “Let’s go.” We did and didn’t look back. We were both dumbfounded that ordering food got us out of a tough situation. What I said was: “Thank you very much, good morning, Greek salad, two eggs, wine, bread, cheese, orange juice, little squid, and watermelon.” The scene was repeated once more a mile ahead. Either I had guessed the passwords or they were not given any ammunition. Or, most probably, they took us for just crazy harmless Americans.
Our job was to teach the “qualified” multi-engine pilots of the Greek Air Force how to fly the “Goat” (an affectionate term used by the Coast Guard at the time applied to the U-16). We immediately discovered these—reluctant to their new assignment—jet pilots, trained in T-33s and T-37s, were given a right seat hop in a DC-3 and thereby “multi-engine” qualified.
When we arrived at the field the first day ready to fly we looked at the collection of airplanes sitting in the August sun. I saw the most un-flyable airplanes since delivering aircraft to Davis-Monthan AFB. So we wandered through the field of airplanes like roaming in a forest selecting the best tree. We picked one that looked nearest ready to fly. The crew rolled it into the hangar and drained the old fuel into 55 gallon drums. They changed spark plugs, oil and replaced tires. It alarmed us somewhat to see the Greek maintenance crews fill the drums with gasoline, screw in the bungs, topple them over on their sides with a hearty kick (sloshing over-spill) then roll them out of the hangar trailing streams of gasoline into the dry grass field there left to sit amongst the airplanes. Then too, of course enhancing our apprehension, was always the ever present lit cigarette dangling from mouths of the Greek crewmen.
The selected plane was refueled, pre-flighted and given a thorough ground run-up. After over a year just sitting parked, it seemed reasonably able to fly. The process was repeated for two more planes. We took turns flying test flights with the three best airplanes we could find. They went without incident. Surprisingly, the aircraft were very good, flew exceptionally well and had virtually no discrepancies during the entire course of training the nineteen pilots. But we were leery.
The unknown quality of the planes emerged on my initial training flight and only the second flight of this airplane. I took two pilot trainees. One sat in the co-pilot seat while the other watched from the radioman’s seat directly behind the copilot. We had just learned that the pilots we were to train “who knew English” didn’t!
After an uneventful takeoff and climb out, we did basic air work with different configurations. Basically, I flew the airplane and the students watched sometimes executing a procedure after I had demonstrated it. A lot of hand signaling for “I have it” “You have it” ensued. Finally came the engine in-flight shut down procedure. It was another “pointy-talky” drill. From the book like checklist on the console between us I pointed to an item (they could read a little English) we were told. Then step-by-step I went down the engine in-flight shut down procedures. It was a demonstration only. I showed. They watched. The moment I hit the “feather” button and the engine “caged,” the goat took a nasty swerve despite my heavy foot pushing on the rudder to counter the now dead engine. I did a quick re-check of the rudder boost. It was on. Despite my struggles, I could not maintain directional control. We were loosing it. Just as I started to put the engine back on line to get us flying again I glanced at the co-pilot and saw his grimacing faced reddened with his body straining and quivering. I relaxed. In his apparent nervousness, he decided to help me. With all his might this single engine jet pilot, who fortunately I outweighed by eighty pounds, was pushing on the wrong rudder peddle!
Despite the lack of a number of good airplanes and the seemingly unqualified pilots, we made excellent progress training the Greek airmen. Their casualness about flight safety at times shocked our overtrained sensibilities. One night while doing GCAs to touch-and-goes, as usual with two pilots to train at a time, I noticed a glowing, something burning on the flight deck, just over my shoulder. It happened during the flare to landing. I jerked around and saw—not strapped in—but standing casually between the pilots’ seats with a hand on the back of my seat and a burning cigarette in the other, “Angel,” the observer pilot, torso bared with his flight suit pealed down to the waist (it was a hot night), watching.
One day Lt. Billy Cunningham forgot to bring his check list. I wasn’t flying so I lent him mine. He did not return it before I next flew. No problem. Each pilot had their own—even the students. So I borrowed one from my students for the day. However, after we strapped in and I flipped it open to start the check list I discovered the Greeks had removed the sheets printed in English from the plastic page holders and inserted new pages all handwritten in Greek!
Then there were the distractions on the field. Just off the approach end of the runway was a manned machine-gun emplacement with what looked to be a 40 mm machine-gun. The muzzle was forever tracing our track during landing approaches.
As soon as it appeared to opponents of the program that we were beginning to succeed, we discovered a major obstacle to flying from Elivsis. One morning upon arriving at work we found a ditch dug across the 8000 foot runway at the 4000 foot mark. “Sorry the field Is closed and will be for several months.” The work was done during the night before by government crews; yet we knew government crews only worked from 0800 to 1300. That was our schedule.
Actually, the bus driver that picked up all the Greek squadron crew members began work at 0800 and arrived at the base with the crew about 0900. At 1030 everyone broke work for a hard bread roll with cheese and orange juice. Then work stopped about 1145 to cleanup to board the bus by 1200 so the driver could be off duty by 1300. So, some one doing major work during the night as a matter of routine, was highly suspect—the intentions even more so.
No problem. That day’s scheduled flights went as did the balance of training through the time we were in Greece. We flew from the narrow parallel taxiway. The ditch diggers stopped short of the taxiway cutting only across the runway. That would be enough to stop most people from flying.
The shortage of airplanes and truncated working hours provided quite a lot of free time for the Coast Guard pilots. (The enlisted crews had much more work to get additional planes on the line.) The pilots spent it in Athens. The unit’s O-in-C, Lcdr. Jim Napier had to make almost daily reports to the US Navy’s military assistance office then repeat the same narration to the US Air Force’s military assistance office two doors down the hall. Furthermore, he was grilled by the USAF on what he was asked by the USN. Sometimes Jim would report in reverse order, but always having to divulge what questions he answered in the other office. The Air Force and Navy—though only sixty feet apart—apparently did not communicate with each other except through Jim. They offered no assistance as their title inferred, only obfuscation and irritation.
It was in Athens during our off hours that we would make the spies work for their pay. Frequently, as we sat at the sidewalk cafés drinking coffee and watching the few tourist, a “spy” would emerge from behind a nearby kiosk take photos of us and swiftly disappear into the crowds. We started a game to see how many spies we could get to tail us at one time. Trolling. One of us would leave the table and wander off making a circuitous route through streets, alleyways and through buildings surrounding Syntagma Square. Then we’d make a pass near the table so those there could count the number snagged. The usual was three in a single sweep. We tried to take advantage of all this attention.
Factions (or almost anyone) against the government were conducting bombings in Athens at this time. The US embassy provided us with an embarrassing vehicle for our transportation. It was a three quarter ton, four-wheel drive (with snow tires in Athens in summer), International carry-all painted olive drab. We didn’t like it for several reasons, one being its conspicuousness. So we set out to get it bombed! Easy. All we had to do was to keep to a set schedule, park it the same place (preferably in an area of frequent bombings) and soon we’d have a new set of wheels. The bad guys were just as incompetent at this task as they were in following us. We suffered with that old beast the entire time we were in Greece.
The soviets were just as inept and obvious with their spies. We were the only occupants in a new hotel. It was not a vacation spot. The only street through the rural town was hard packed dirt and gravel. There was only one restaurant—without menus. Patrons had to order the day before what they wanted to eat. The local bakery, once finished with the daily bread baking, would bake off casseroles for housewives and the restaurant in the only oven in town. (This is why our diet was little more than salad, bread, feta cheese and wine.) Anyway, shortly after we moved in the village, two Russian women “on vacation” became the only other occupants of our hotel. They spoke Greek and English which helped us because no one in the village spoke any English. They did not go anywhere or do anything holiday like. They just stayed at the hotel and spent most of the time on the verandah where we spent some of our time. They would be there when we came in from work and there when we went off for an other day’s work. They were friendly but not attractive like one might expect of women spies. Not like the movies. The young one (and best looking of the pair), looked a lot like Nikita Sergeyevich Kruschev—the other was just plain ugly, both with bodies suited to pulling a plow. These agents seemed a little more formidable to their task. We started bringing them American whisky. About a gallon every two days. Sometimes more. They loved it! They became our best friends in Greece and stayed drunk for the balance of our stay.
We had other encounters with agents—some planned—some not. But none was like the handsome, competent, sneaky, wizened-spies from novels or movies. Most were like help that comes at minimum wage and are found at fast-food places. But, obversely, we were not sophisticated enough to spot the competent ones. Our capabilities in this arena were about on par with the hamburger servers.
We had power struggles even in the airplane between the Greek Air Force and Greek Navy. The Air Force did the driving up front. The Navy (non-aviators) were the mission specialist in the back of the plane doing the anti-submarine thing. Both felt they should be in charge. Both sabotaged our efforts. Neither wanted the program to succeed.
For example, new tires for our aircraft mysteriously disappeared in the Greek military supply system. One morning, since I was most fluent in Greek (already demonstrated), Jim Napier sent me to a Greek Air Force supply warehouse to track down our errant tires. The US Air Force had flown several shipments in to Greece and each shipment mysteriously disappeared. By agreement the USAF had to give them over to the Greek Air Force for distribution to us. We couldn’t just simply take our carry-all up to meet the USAF C-141 and drive away with the tires.
There was only a single Greek Air Force sergeant in the supply building when I arrived. He knew no English. I started yelling about tires, in English. I saw some tires in a back room through a partly open door. So I hustled around the counter, pushing open the door and bursting in. He followed, confused, bewildered. The room was filled with “goat” sized airplane tires all fresh from the US. All the shipments that had disappeared were there. A little more yelling by me, still in English (I wasn’t about to try the watermelon word again—it has sort of a disgusting sound), was accompanied with appropriate gesturing. The tires arrived shortly at the hangar.
In some ways we succeeded that summer. We never learned though if Soviet subs were thwarted. But the Greek Air Force pilots did become good “multi-engine” drivers. Fifteen years later on other trips to Greece, I saw the SHU-16Bs still flying. The Colonels were overthrown. Tourist returned. And somewhere in secret files stretching from Greece through Turkey to Russia there are probably hundreds of photos of the six US Coast Guard Pilots who taught the Greeks to be modern “goat herders.”